As promised in the debut of the Video Game Burns and Apologies series, we offer here a few case studies attesting to the place of games in literature. Not that it is necessary to justify games–as will become clear, they are integral to the more classically recognized repositories of the world’s great stories–but simply, as if in passing, we hope to show by their perennial presence together the deep elective affinity between games and literature.
As for approaches, I’ve considered and discarded a reading list like that of St John’s, my grad school alma mater; the story-telling frame story of the Canterbury Tales, perhaps modernized as a bachelor party (not) reading Don Quixote; a detective story, along the lines of Poe’s Murders of the Rue Morgue, since I’ve always wondered what book it is the characters are looking for, and when in Paris myself once passed an unrecoverable afternoon looking for Stendhal’s Shakespeare et Racine… Projecting and putting aside theories of reading as aesthetic or ascetic (or prosthetic : ) practice, as escape, as responsibility and delight, I’ve instead settled on the following rough and ready fetch modus: creation and consolidation.
By the logic of creation I mean that ongoing process of our reading and playing which is generative of ever new meaning, and which inheres in the stories and games we continue to return to without tiring. In such literature and games, where we can always find something new, it makes sense to say that creation itself is unfinished. To go along with that is the patient art of consolidation, making connections from one to another moment of realization, between works and between people, and most of all, linking across times and cultures. In short, we will follow the logos, as Lea would say, and begin where we are.
For our first Spring Break read here at the Video Game Academy, the capacious Brothers Karamazov provides an inexhaustible starting point for all sorts of investigations.
Structured as it is into parts, books, and chapters, Dostoevsky’s long novel represents a daunting prospect for the reader. We recommend reading (or listening) at the rate of a book every week or two, just to keep momentum going, but no amount, however much or little, is wasted effort. Our introduction to the author and the text is comprised in our recent discussion, but check back here for updates, and join in on the discord.
In years past when I would read the book teaching high school seniors, I followed the method of question-based seminar. We bring the questions that arise in our reading and read relevant passages and discuss them together, then write on some core selection. Journaling on the book helps with any work read this way, but particularly so with a long, character-rich text like this one. Lea, my colleague and master teacher at the school where kids actually read this book all spring of their senior year, is the journaller par excellence, taking to heart Juan Ramon’s quip: if they give you lined paper, turn it sideways. In what follows, I do my best to share my notes on this game-like reading, as far as the medium allows.
Arguably the literature that NieR: Automata, like all the most pretentious games, aspires to point towards is the Bible first, and The BK does the same. Though whether a book like the Bible is just literature, any more than games like these just tell a story, seems open to question.
Where the NieRs: Automata and Xenogears of the world take for their subtitle You shall be as gods, and the dominant imagery and metaphorical space within them is that of the Garden and the Fall, Dostoevsky manages to subvert all that with his line taken from the parables: Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, if bringeth forth much fruit. It turns out to be the first of many quietly meta moments in the text, as (much) later we’ll see the characters wrestling with this very line (p. 309).
For the record, the quotes and pagination here are pulled from the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation; however, speaking of course without any knowledge of Russian original, I venture to say that any edition will work just as well, for Dostoevsky seems to be operating on that level of myth and legend wherein the story and its kernel of truth can survive any amount of translation or adaptation intact. But their introduction and notes, to say nothing of the rendering into English, are all very nice.
In the brief message From the Author, which we might more accurately distinguish as coming from the narrator, the book we are reading is immediately reframed for us in the context of a second, imaginary novel. For all his narrator’s earnestness, then, the authorial presence seems to be characterized, from the dedication and opening pages, by its subversively hopeful playfulness. A corresponding combination of earnestness and playfulness feels like the right mood to engage with it in as a reader. Posed with the author and/or narrator’s questions about heroism, their choice of Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov as hero and their choice to tell this portion of his biography as a preliminary, this “keen-sighted reader” anyhow has no better guess about what they are up to beyond setting the tone. The question about the nature of heroism, though, is perennial: the most urgent question, and the most entertaining.
Book I: A Nice Little Family – Fyodor Pavlovich, the father of our hero, includes within himself each of his sons, as they in their way include something of his, and as Fyodor Dostoevsky, his namesake, does each of his characters. “But all his life, as a matter of fact, Fyodor Pavlovich was fond of play-acting, of suddenly taking up some unexpected role right in front of you, often when there was no need for it…” (11). Fyodor’s role-playing, his buffoonery, make him somehow sympathetic, despite his horrible irresponsibility and lewdness.
The first extended speech we get from him entails an extended joke about the hooks with which, he fears, the devils will drag him down to hell when he dies: “And then I think: hooks? Where do they get them? What are they made of? Iron? Where do they forge them? Have they got some kind of factory down there?” (24). He wraps it up with a quote adapted from Voltaire, the arch-atheist of the Enlightenment: “they would have to be invented,” he says (in French) of his hooks, whereas the Frenchman said it about God; but the image might also conjure up Don Giovanni at the end of Mozart’s opera. I think of the fires of NieR: Automata’s factory, and also of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Though it’s evidently meant as a playful barb at the monastery and Alyosha’s choice to enter as a novice there, this speech yields to Alyosha’s forgiveness, “quietly and seriously, studying his father,” just as we are doing (25). The hero, from these opening scenes, is connected with his mother, a woman of passionate faith who remains to him in the form of an early memory: “a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all), an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and before the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God…” (18). By his choice, he places himself in the similarly strict embrace of the elders, with their total control over the monks, but as we’ll see, his obedience to the Elder Zosima takes him back into the world rather than allowing him to remain at the monastery.
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering – Just when it looks like we might have some action at last, still more characters are introduced: not just Miusov, the old liberal, but Kalganov, Maximov, Rakitin, and the other monks. Such action as does ensue will be filtered through their varying perspectives, setting up a complex series of foils and vantage points on the main action centered on the Karamazovs, of whom we, too, like so many rubberneckers in the crowd, are trying to get a clear view. The inevitable scandal does come about, perhaps just because of Fyodor’s love of play-acting (73), but it is delayed by more crowds, this time made up of women of faith, foils for Alyosha’s mother and lenses on his elder’s love.
Another quiet meta moment here, indicated by the biographical note that Dostoevsky, like the woman pilgrim, had a young son who died: “‘And I will remember your little child in my prayers for the repose of the dead. What was his name?’ ‘Alexei, dear father'” (50). Not only is this the name of his hero, it is the actual name of his own dead son: an even closer likeness than the Hamnet/Hamlet echo in Shakespeare’s life and work.
On a less personal level, we may become aware of another presence haunting the text around this point, namely the poet Schiller. His play The Robbers gives Fyodor nicknames for himself and his sons and foreshadows the crime to come (71). He’ll return in more poetic fashion with Dmitri’s invocation of the Ode to Joy, the same put to music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony (107). But for our purposes, Schiller may be most significant for his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, in the course of which he hits upon the momentous power of the “play-instinct”.
The object of the sensuous instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is named Life in the widest acceptation: a conception that expresses all material existence and all that is immediately present in the senses. The object of the formal instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is called shape or form, as well in an exact as in an inexact acceptation; a conception that embraces all formal qualities of things and all relations of the same to the thinking powers. The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form; a term that serves to describe all aesthetic qualities of phaenomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.– Letter XV
Which takes us nicely into Mitya’s rapturous confession in the gazebo, and on to the rest of the fence-hoppings and unexpected meetings in Book III.
Book III: The Sensualists – “‘The Lord God created light on the first day, and the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Where did the light shine from on the first day?'” (124). Smerdyakov’s question about light, asked with a sudden grin, is answered by the devout servant Grigory with a blow to the head. It is an exchange that recalls Fyodor’s question about the hooks–where he, too, called himself a “stinker,” preparing the pun on his bastard son’s patronymic–though the response is far from Alyosha’s reply. Still more, Smerdyakov resembles his father in play-acting, though in his case it is morbid: “As a child he was fond of hanging cats and then burying them with ceremony. He would put on a sheet, which served him as a vestment, chant, and swing something over the dead cat as if it were a censer” (ibid.). The discussion of faith this time over the cognac becomes still more scandalous than the scenes at the monastery, a parody of a parody, yet concludes somehow seriously.
Alyosha, for his part, helplessly imitates his mother under the influence of his father’s blasphemous story: “the very same thing he had just told about the ‘shrieker’ repeated itself with him” (137). Rather than play-acting, he is as if possessed–or hacked, in the language of the game. (Though it is Smerdyakov who, like Prince Myshkin of The Idiot and like Dostoevsky himself, is afflicted with “the falling sickness,” epilepsy. Along with their autobiographical and biblical echoes, all of Dostoevsky’s novels bear some connection to play, running the gamut from the gambling of the Adolescent to the toy railway cut-out of Demons…)
A couple more times here towards the end of the first part we see references to the icon of the Mother of God. As if to apologize to Alyosha for the scenes enacted between them, past and present, Fyodor offers him “that little icon” (141), and Lise, wondering how he will understand her love letter, “assure[s Alyosha] that now, before I took up the pen, I prayed to the icon of the Mother of God” (159). We might well imagine that the author could say the same.
Just in passing, we should note that along with these icons and the imitations or intimations of God they imply, and along with Alyosha’s own predilection for imitation and Christ-typing, there is the childlike quality of Lise’s playfulness and Grushenka’s joy (148). Where Lise is still practically a child herself, though, Grushenka is a mature woman whose fame precedes her. Perhaps it is for this reason that her “childlike, openhearted expression” so strikes Alyosha (ibid). Reading with games in the forefront of our minds, we can see how these two approaches to the divine, the icon and the childlike soul disposed to adore it, might be brought together in the form of a video game, where the graven image comes to life.
Book IV: Strains – Moving into the next, still more eventful day and the second part of The Brothers Karamazov, the presiding spirit of the elder Zosima greets us in this striking formulation of his view on the mystery of love, in its own way a little icon of the incarnation and imitation of Christ: “each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth” (164). I have come to believe that this mystical knowledge is none other than that renovated understanding of original sin so courted and catalyzed by Philip Pullman in pursuit of his poetic forebears, Milton, Blake, and Kleist–just one more reason for this to be the other bookend on the project which His Dark Materials and EarthBound/MOTHER2 launched us on in Bookwarm Games and Gamecool Books. Plot-wise, it also helps us begin to understand why the elder bowed to Dmitri the day before. Father Paissy’s impassioned words at the end of the opening chapter seem directed at someone more like Pullman, say Ivan, than Alyosha, their recipient: “those who renounce Christianity and rebel against it are in their essence of the same image of the same Christ, and such they remain, for until now neither their wisdom nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create another, higher image of man and his dignity than the image shown of old by Christ” (171).
Book V: Pro and Contra – Indeed, despite the elders’ words in the background and their messenger Alyosha flitting through the foreground, Ivan, with his determined rebellion and his poem of the Grand Inquisitor will dominate this section of the book. He inspires acting from Katerina Ivanovna, called out by Alyosha as theatrical in her denial of her love for the middle brother (191), and he can make little of the obscure hints dropped by Smerdyakov as from one intelligent man to another (269), but once more it is Alyosha who shows himself at once most receptive and most formidable in responding to Ivan’s arguments. Having quoted his own succinct “formula” back to him, “everything is permitted,” he answers Ivan’s philosophical diatribe of the Grand Inquisitor and his anguished question, “Will you renounce me for that?” with a kiss (263). This piece of “literary theft” so delights us, as it does Ivan, in that moment with its message of acceptance and forgiveness that we might miss how typical it is of Alyosha, our impressionable hero, and of the author’s method as a whole: to take the words dropped by a story and bring them to life.
To invert things for a moment, lest we get too heroic, let’s recur to the presentation of Fyodor Karamazov as a buffoon, since we meet another buffoonish father in Captain Snegiryov (202). We must not ignore the seemingly minor side-plot introduced by the “Strain” chapters preceding Ivan and Alyosha’s talk at the inn, for its undercurrent supplies not only this variation on the parent/elder, buffoon/saint motif, but also numerous instances of that very childlike joy and cruelty so central to Ivan’s poem–and the play and games central to our reading. Ultimately it will provide the setting for Alyosha’s closing speech. Up until that point, the most important event at the inn had been Dmitri’s shameful treatment of the “whiskbroom,” the consequences of which lead to the stoning of his sickly son by the other boys, Alyosha’s intervention, and the bite to his finger. In his attempt to reimburse the Captain on Katya’s orders, Alyosha becomes the auditor of Snegiryov’s tenderness and pride. His own speech at the stone is prepared in advance by the father’s recollection of the talks he and Ilyusha would have on their walks there: how they would move away one day, how “it’s time we flew our kite from last year…” (208).
Book VI: The Russian Monk – In a general way, the all-important theme of imitation, shown most clearly and consistently in Alyosha’s heroic, authentic play-acting, could be rephrased in terms of repetition with variation–terms which are mirrored in the author’s style. Indeed, such creative imitation is implicit in poetry or narrative as a whole. At the start of this book, we see the passage about the “corn of wheat” repeated once more (285). It comes in the context of the elder’s confession of his love for Alyosha owing to a “resemblance” and “repetition” of his own brother’s spiritual countenance. This flows into the elder’s last talk, presented as recorded by Alyosha himself: Zosima “contemplating my whole life as if I were living it all anew…” (286). As of course we do, imaginatively or spiritually, if you like, each time that we read it.
In the light of the “slanting rays” of the setting sun, we see another of those decisive memories, like Alyosha’s of his mother. This time it is the elder’s dying brother who tells him, after a long and tender look, “‘go now, play, live for me!'” (290). With all due reverence for the reflections upon the importance of such memories which follow, very like what we heard at the start of the novel and will hear again at the end (774), and for the reading and understanding that begins for him with the book of Job in the incense-laden rays of light in the church, it is the elder’s immediate response which stands out on this reading as being absolutely right and true to life: “I walked out then and went to play.”
At a critical moment in his adult life, Zosima cites the same words about the “corn of wheat” to a confidant and would-be assassin, helping to convince him to confess his former crimes and prevent his repeating them (309). With less than Smerdyakovian guile and with palpable guilt, the suffering man asks him who wrote these words. He seems unconvinced by Zosima’s answer (the Holy Spirit) but is struck by the slightly different formulation in Hebrews 10:31: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is as if the game of Biblical quotation suddenly becomes all too real. He feels the truth of those words, no doubt due in part to associations they carry for him personally, connected to his own memories and upbringing. And he bids Zosima remember that moment, when unbeknownst to the reader his visitor held back from killing him.
Echoes of the more literal insistence on the monk’s bearing “the image of Christ” recur in the tail-end of the talks and homilies, after this inset story of the killer which prefigures some of the crimes to follow in the main novel (313). So, too, do reflections about the common people’s upbringing, the necessity for “sunshine, children’s games, bright examples all around, and to be given at least a drop of love” (315). In passing, then, Zosima addresses Ivan’s core complaint about the suffering of children. In short order, these images of seeds and childhood and Christ come together in a kind of apology for Mitya’s passionate striving for the “great and beautiful” as well as a diagnosis of Ivan’s crisis of faith (320). The notes tell me that Victor Terras considers this passage the book’s “master key,” for what that’s worth. I agree that it seems important, and I hope and pray that this “sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds” may be strengthened by reading books as well as playing video games in this muddled interpretative way of our own.
Book VII: Alyosha – The expected miracle does not come to pass. For all his wise, mystical words, collected and written by Alyosha himself, the elder Zosima does not escape the natural odor of bodily decay after his death. So distraught is Alyosha by this turn of events and the accompanying scandal, propagated in part by that connoisseur of the “Holispirit,” Father Ferapont (169), he takes Rakitin up on his offer to bring him to Grushenka. There, with the fallen woman in his lap and the opportunist leering, looking on, Alyosha holds back at the last moment from drinking “to the gates of paradise” (351). As soon as she realizes that the elder died, Grushenka spares him, restores his soul, saves him. Far from eating him up, as she had intended, she “gave an onion,” referring to the fable she knows from her childhood, and which she recites (352). She and Alyosha are each, reciprocally, the guardian angel and the wicked woman to one another, and the story itself, or its shared effect, the onion of mercy (cf. the onion knight of JRPG lore). The image carries over into Alyosha’s dream vision, blended with the reading of the Cana of Galilee miracle over Zosima’s body that night, as the elder takes up the refrain in his own voice: “I gave a little onion, and so I am here” (361). Waking from that onion and that new wine, Alyosha ecstatically embraces the earth and feels in his soul that he is, in the elder’s words, “touching other worlds” (362).
Book VIII: Mitya – We come to the catastrophe long-foreshadowed, not least by the elder’s own bow to the ground before him (74), of Mitya’s doomed passion and his father’s death. A series of farcical errands immediately precedes it, as he goes first to Kuzma, then Lyagavy, then Khokhlakov desperately asking for money to repay his debts and allow him to run away with his beloved. In passing, Pushkin’s remark on Othello is quoted: “Othello is not jealous, he is trustful” (380). With evidently sincere approval of the national poet (see Dostoevsky’s Pushkin speech), the narrator reflects on the naïve trust impelling Mitya on his search, hilarious as it is pitiful. Yet at the crucial moment, the narrator himself betrays our trust, or perhaps delays our jealous pursuit of a truth inaccessible to the characters themselves, by inserting a series of ellipses across the page in place of the scene of Mitya’s confrontation with his father. There is something of the playfulness of Tristram Shandy in this typographical evasion, but something too of the religious mystery: “‘God was watching over me then,’ Mitya used to say afterwards” is the phrase immediately following this break in the narrative–and for His agent, He selects Grigory the faithful servant (393).
In place of Othello, Mitya compares himself with Hamlet, misquoting the soliloquy on Yorick–and then compares himself to Yorick, the jester and the skull alike (406). It is his Horatio, Pyotr Ilyich, whom the narrative follows digressively to his game of billiards at the tavern (408). This first of several literal games we’ll see in quick succession, and the gossip accompanying it, help to trigger the start of the investigation which will occupy so much of the remainder of the novel. Though the investigation of Mitya is far from the cat and mouse game of Crime and Punishment, it seems to fit a similar role of diverting the characters and complicating the story, functioning as an elaborate red herring over against the true judgment of God which the novelist is after.
Sure enough, Grushenka’s “former and indisputable one” is supposed to be playing cards waiting for her (411), though when Mitya arrives they are smoking pipes and talking. At once he makes a bid for “music, noise, racket, everything just as before…” (417), though the repetition of the mad feast in Mokroye when he first fell in love with Grushenka begins rather tamely, with Maximov inserting himself into Dead Souls (422) and telling other droll anecdotes. To keep from quarrelling over the toasts, they call for cards as the band and dancers assemble (425). Mitya proceeds to lose again and again, doubling down repeatedly (427), much as he doubles down on the party itself, dreaming of a last wild night before his suicide, as he supposes. But Grushenka’s disillusionment and disgust at “her former one,” together with Kalganov’s sensible objection that they are cheating at cards, easily proved by the appearance of the innkeeper’s unopened deck (431), lead him to reconsider, to hope, and finally to realize that they could have a future together, and not just a night of delirium. On the eve of that life-saving love, however, the investigation is already underway.
Book IX: The Preliminary Investigation – Again, the celerity of the authorities’ response is owing to games: billiards on the part of Pyotr Ilyich (who may even merit a “special word” in some imaginary future novel 451), and cards in the case of the police commissioner, the prosecutor, and the district attorney (452). That game-preserved love of Mitya’s, that dance promised by Grushenka and deferred, run up against the implacable questions of the investigators. Mitya’s assurance of his own nobility and familiarity with the other men are turned chapter by chapter to a series of “torments” as they refuse to simply believe him. He likens them to the pursuer in his recurring nightmare: “he knows perfectly well where I’m hiding, but he seems to pretend not to know where I am on purpose, in order to torment me longer” (471). After being strip-searched for the missing money and having his bloody clothes removed as evidence, he has to dress in clothes lent by Kalganov, slightly too small and nicer than his own, prompting the bitter thought, “shall I play the buffoon in them…” (485). Finally, as the evidence stacks up, Mitya reveals the secret of the money hidden sewn into an amulet around his neck, only to be met with more ridiculous questions. “Are you joking?” is all he can reply when asked where the material for this amulet came from (497). Instead of the truth of his story being accepted, all he is left with is the assurance that Grushenka indeed loves him and will go with him to his expected punishment in Siberia, and the “new face” and heartfelt question of his own prompted by his “good dream” of “the wee one”: “who put that pillow under my head?” (508). The narrator speculates, but does not say.
Book X: Boys – Into the narrative space opened up by the episode of the “whiskbroom” and all that follows–an aspect of Mitya’s crime considered much less grave than the parricide–steps Kolya, the “desperado” (517). He lies between the tracks to let a train pass over him to prove his boast, and “announced that he had pretended to be unconscious on purpose” to scare the others the more. Between this and his esoteric knowledge of “who founded Troy,” the boy is a tyrant among his peers; unintentionally cruel towards his adoring mother; a stern master to his dog, “teaching him all sorts of tricks and skills” (519); but he is immensely attractive to the story, which bends around him as if the Karamazovs were forgotten, right until the final paragraph of the chapter where his wound by Ilyusha draws him into connection with Alyosha.
He’s defensive of his love towards his little neighbors, watching over them and playing with them, “but this was no time for games” (521). To divert them from difficult questions about where babies come from and keep them out of trouble while he goes about his mysterious business, he offers to let them play with a toy cannon. “And can it kill somebody?” “It can kill everybody, you just have to aim it” (522). Better yet, though, is to have Perezvon (lit. “Chimes,” according to Terras, as in church bells) play dead. The resurrection of the dog, as we soon discover, is to be Kolya’s greatest trick. It emerges, in the story he tells Alyosha, that Zhuchka, the dog Ilyusha and the others are all pining for, ran away after the sickly boy played a “beastly trick, a vile trick” taught him by Smerdyakov, feeding it a pin hidden in a soft bit of bread (535)–but he insists again that Perezvon is not Zhuchka. Alyosha, for his part, defends the buffoonery of Snegiryov, the boy’s father, as “something like a spiteful irony against those to whom they dare not speak the truth directly” (537).
More to the point for Kolya, however, is the rumor that he “played robbers with the preparatory class last week,” which he hastens to justify as selfless, not for his own pleasure but “for the kids,” and winding up with the question, “But you don’t play hobbyhorse, do you?” (537). Here we get Alyosha’s theory of play as mimesis, worth quoting at length:
‘You should reason like this,’ Alyosha smiled. ‘Adults, for instance, go to the theater, and in the theater, too, all sorts of heroic adventures are acted out, sometimes also with robbers and battles–and isn’t that the same thing, in its own way, of course? And a game of war among youngsters during a period of recreation, or a game of robbers–that, too, is a sort of nascent art, an emerging need for art in a young soul, and these games are sometimes even better conceived than theater performances, with the only difference that people go to the theater to look at the actors, and here young people are themselves the actors. But it’s only natural.’pp. 537-8
Which, along with the equality with which it is spoken, delights Kolya and assures him of Alyosha’s friendship and wisdom. He, of course, has “reconciled and brought” all the boys to keep Ilyusha and his father company. In securing Kolya at last, he has introduced something more dangerous: the miracle or magic trick of returning Zhuchka as well. The shock could well have killed him, but “as for the captain, he seemed to have turned into a very little boy” (544). Once more, the toy cannon is paired with this power over life and (play) death, but the streak of possessiveness previously associated with Kolya seems broken, as he gives the cannon to Ilyusha, who immediately gives it to his poor mother over his father’s objections (547). Falseness and tension creep in at the story of the goose killed on a whim, an escalation of the picaresque interactions we’ve seen in the marketplace, and Kolya’s dismissal of classical languages in the wake of his secret about the walls of Troy being blabbed out, until Alyosha finally asks, “But who taught you all that?” (552). Their conversation touches on Voltaire once more, on medicine, on Napoleon and Pushkin, but it is ultimately “a declaration of love” (558). As suddenly as this happy mutual recognition comes, our kindred spirits are just on the point of breaking it off over the rudeness Kolya shows towards Katya’s doctor, but he obeys Alyosha as peremptorily, as Perezvon obeys him. His true feelings come through in tears, and his question about Jerusalem, prompted by the Captain’s bombastic sorrow, is the seal of the beginning of his education by Alyosha (562). Though reciting Psalm 137, Snegiryov might also be thinking of the ending of Job echoed in his son’s offer of “another boy,” as Ilyusha was inconsolable without the real Zhuchka back.
Book XI: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich – We finally learn the name of the town: Skotoprigonyevsk, “roughly ‘cattle-roundup-ville'” as the notes have it, and a beat of humor in either language. Even more strangely, it seems Ivan has taken to visiting Liza, Alyosha’s sometime betrothed, and that Kalganov, too, the dreamer, has made her a declaration of love. “He’s like a top: spin him and set him down and then whip, whip, whip” (581). In her bitterness she sounds like Kolya, whose temptation to nihilism peeks through (557)–“lucky boy,” she calls him, for his daring (583)–but she also unwittingly confirms Fyodor’s own deepest beliefs about human nature (173). In the blood libel she has an answer after Ivan’s own heart to his anguished questions of faith; over against the onion of Grushenka, she imagines “eating pineapple compote” while crucifying a child, and when she tells “everything, everything” to Ivan he, like a distorted God of Genesis, “said it was ‘good'” (584). Despite Alyosha’s reassurance, she gives herself a wound to match his own, slamming her finger in the door.
In parallel scenes, Alyosha meets with his brothers, telling each that he does not think they committed the murder. Dmitri is harping on his dream of the wee one, adapting the formulation of universal guilt and forgiveness after his own fashion, while Ivan, without looking at it, tears up the letter from Liza and breaks with Alyosha. Increasingly convoluted visits to Smerdyakov are narrated at this point. The fourth Karamazov brother is working on his French and counting his money, with a book of homilies for a paperweight. Ivan resolves to confess his complicity, despite Smerdyakov’s insistence on his own motto, “everything is permitted.” He even helps the drunk peasant, a close echo of the wee one, in from the snowbank where he’d pushed him. But then comes the devil. Where Alyosha dreamt of Cana and Dmitri of the wee one, Ivan hallucinates “a certain type of Russian gentleman…such spongers, gentlemen of agreeable nature, who can tell a story or two and play a hand of cards…” (632-3). This playful rendition of the “dread and intelligent spirit” of his poem of the Grand Inquisitor (251) toys with Ivan, turns his own logic against him, and generally presents a harrowing picture of the unraveling of the young man’s reason. He alludes to his own desire to love God as a star-crossed impossibility, but reflects it mercilessly in his method of tormenting Ivan with doubt and faith as to his own existence; the devil uncannily previews the prosecutor’s arguments about the Karamazovs’ ability to “contemplate such abysses of belief and disbelief at one and the same moment” (645, cf. 699). The illness which results is hardly allayed by Alyosha’s news that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. In the throes of possibility Ivan remains.
Book XII: A Judicial Error – The ace attorney, Fetyukovich, brought in by Katya for the defense, contrives to show up the witnesses’ fallibility in ingenious and ridiculous ways–Grigory with his alcoholic balm and a winking reference to Revelation, Rakitin with his reward for bringing Alyosha to Grushenka–but Mitya manages to undermine his efforts with unsympathetic outbursts. “Aesop,” he calls his father, and “Pierrot” (666), hardly showing the reverence one would expect. Captain Snegiryov never even gets cross-examined, as he breaks down without providing the prosecutor with his expected evidence, having promised Ilyusha not to speak about the insult and all that has followed from it. “He was quickly taken out amid the laughter of the public” (669), who emerge more and more as a character in their own right, a sort of chorus commenting on the courtroom drama. Their commentary on the pans, too, is simply “public laughter” (670).
The pathos of the German doctor and his story of how his “heart turned over” recalling Mitya as a boy (675), the sudden recollection by Alyosha of Mitya’s indicating the hidden money: “why is he hitting himself up there, when the heart is lower down” (678)–everything seems to be going the defense’s way, until the testimony of Katya, Grushenka, and most of all Ivan (for whom a good parricide is so much “‘Bread and circuses!'” 686) leads to a disastrous reversal. Ironically, they each intend to save Mitya, yet the result is an outburst and apogee of that “hysterical and strained love, love out of wounded pride, a love that resembled not love but revenge” so long prepared by Katya’s playing the doting fiancée (691).
In his closing speech, the prosecutor-psychologist Ippolot Kirillovich goes on to present an almost perfectly topsy-turvy account of the events and characters we have come to know. Quoting no less an authority than Rakitin, he portrays Grushenka “in a few concise and characteristic phrases: ‘Early disappointment, early deception and fall…’ After such a characterization one can understand how she might laugh at the two of them simply as a game, a vicious game” (702). Whereas in the novel as a whole as we have it from our narrator, she approximates something more like a Mary Magdalen, giving an onion. She even comes to represent, in the hopes of Fyodor and Mitya, the mystery of the existence of God by her presence or absence. As to the intervention of Smerdyakov, which he entertains hypothetically as having occurred much as the killer actually explained it to Ivan, the prosecutor concludes: “No, gentlemen, fantasy, too, must have its limits” (711). Which tells us more about the limits of his psychology than it does about the truth he has imaginatively touched on. In the intermission, the chorus of townspeople rightly sum up his prospects.
In the concluding speech for the defense, Fetyukovich continues eliciting chuckles from the assembly, undermining the prosecution’s grasp of the facts and deriding its psychological novels, and generally reframing events in a form admitting of doubt that Mitya was responsible. So much so, that the prosecutor rightly objects that he has spun a “poem” of his own, attempting to exonerate his client finally by denying Fyodor the name of father (748). The jury, it transpires, is similarly unmoved. For all the raptures of the audience, the final dry comments of the chorus remark: “Yes, sir, our peasants stood up for themselves.” “And finished off our Mitenka” (753). Their homely possessives and diminutives bespeak the pity tempered with awe, collective responsibility, and wry acceptance of the community as a whole.
The concluding scenes of the novel concern us chiefly for the way they help coalesce the image of Alyosha, less as the messenger angel of the main plot than the teacher and role model of the subplot. First we see off Ivan, Mitya, Katya, and Grushenka, rendered, respectively, comatose, resigned, deluded, and awesome by the continually interweaving love triangles they are caught in. (Perhaps in some imaginary future novel they would carry on so in Siberia or America; while Alyosha, if Dostoevsky scholars are to be credited, was to become a schoolmaster determined to take out the tsar. As strange a literary afterlife as that of Thomas Aquinas’ dismissal of his writings as “so much straw,” Sophie and Emile in Rousseau, or Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare.) Then the subplot receives its culmination in Ilyusha’s funeral, its transfiguration in the speech at the stone where they had flown their kites, dreamed of escape, and where the boy had asked to be buried. Alyosha’s words flow from the other worlds, pointing forward to answer Kolya’s question about the rising of the dead (776) and back to memories of Zosima’s life and his own earliest childhood:
You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about our education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation.p. 774
In all the long novel, this one story of Ilyusha stands forth as what we should remember. It is one more seed fallen ready to rise up, one more thread on a kite or a rag, one more stone from the other worlds of Ilyusha and his father, exemplary of and rooted in all the rest of Dostoevsky’s playful art in The Brothers Karamazov.
Up next: by way of chess, Shakespeare’s valedictory play, The Tempest. And then Montaigne and his cat.
For more on Dostoevsky, see Frank’s biography and Bakhtin’s classic study, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Our own Professor Kozlowski’s podcast discussion, or an article like Dennis Patrick Slattery’s “Idols and Icons: Comic Transformation in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed,” might provide more academic discussion along the lines sketched here.
And what if the question becomes not, What if these games are the literature of the age?–the overlapping with social media, the way its games are being played out world-historically, make it hard to argue that anymore–but the more pointed, What effect will such a literature have on the generation that grows up with it? That generation of smartphones glowing instead of flashlights under the covers at bedtime, which has never learned to read books, has it learned to read games? Of course, not reading books, that’s arguably nothing new; but to never have read games, only to have played them and watched streamers play them–that would have some measurable effect, surely, just as its opposite would.
If the convulsions in formerly comfortable views of history, or its end, and in national and personal mythology and the like are in any way related to the games and stories we’ve grown up on, or the entertainment on mobile platforms we’ve turned to instead, that would be worth knowing. All the better if it’s not too late to do something about it. And if there is some consolation or effectual transcendence to go with that, to mitigate or recompense, as I believe there must be–along the lines of a cathedral’s beauty amid the crusades, or Proust’s novel written bedridden amid the decay of his siècle, or Woolf’s paean to all her sisters’ and Shakespeare’s sister’s wasted potential–then how would that show up? Could that, too, prove measurable? In the balance with Nero fiddling, after all, there’s the piece for the end of the world, the musicians Frankl learns from, Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Violin, and so on, to play on Bakhtin’s theory of polyphony.
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